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Conservationists object to Indonesia’s ‘anti-science’ crackdown amid orangutan population data dispute

Conservation scientists who questioned the Indonesian government’s claim that populations of critically-endangered orangutans are still growing have been restricted from working in the country. Scientists and NGOs say that this reflects a worrying decline in academic freedom in the biodiverse Southeast Asian country.

A Borneon orangutan
The Indonesian government says orangutan numbers are growing, scientists say otherwise. Image: Moses Ceaser/CIFOR/Flickr

Conservation researchers working to save orangutans in Indonesia are appealing against a mandate from the country’s environment ministry that restricts foreign scientists from accessing forest areas and official data.

In an official letter of complaint sent to Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar on Thursday (1 December), scientists backed by 15 local and international non-government organisations said that a directive passed in September to restrict foreign scientists from researching wildlife in Indonesia undermined academic freedoms and reflected an “anti-science” policy by the government.

Indonesia’s environment and forestry ministry issued the restrictions in response to an opinion editorial written by scientists in The Jakarta Post in September that questioned the environment minister’s claim that orangutan populations are still growing.

Sumatran, Bornean and Tapanuli orangutans are all classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and are threatened by habitat loss and hunting.

Siti Nurbaya was quoted in industry news site Forest Hints on 19 August, World Orangutan Day, as saying that ground-based evidence confirms that Sumatran, Tapanuli and Bornean orangutans are far from extinction and their populations are continuing to grow.

She said that ground-based evidence should be considered in response to “negative campaigns” about the fate of orangutans in Indonesia that use a “projections-based approach” to measure their numbers.

The government can generate an alternative narrative about what is happening with Indonesia’s wildlife and natural ecosystems, and unless there is a counter-narrative, the government narrative will become reality.

Dr Erik Meijaard, director, Borneo Futures

Dutch conservation biologist Dr Erik Meijaard and Julie Sherman, a United States-based executive director of non-profit Wildlife Impact, had argued in response to Nurbaya’s claims that orangutan species are actually in decline, with no data to suggest otherwise. 

A 2018 paper by Meijaard, Sherman and others also disputed the Indonesian government claim that orangutan populations have been growing, pointing to other studies that find Bornean orangutan populations had dropped by at least 25 per cent in a decade.

The environment ministry responded to Meijaard and Sherman’s piece with an article in The Jakarta Post in September that backed Siti Nurbaya’s claim that orangutan numbers are growing, referring to field data at specific sites in Kalimantan and Sumatra in 2022.

The article dismissed the foreign scientists’ analysis as based on modeling and interpolation of outdated data.

“We hope our clarification will keep Indonesian and international audiences from misleading and inaccurate information on Indonesia’s efforts to conserve orangutans,” the ministry said.

On 14 September, Meijaard and Sherman, along with scientists Marc Ancrenaz, Hjalmar Kuhl and Serge Wich, were issued with a research supervision letter which stated that their findings on the decline of orangutan populations had “negative indications that can discredit the government”.

The scientists were effectively blocked from doing any conservation work in Indonesia without supervision.

The letter also outlined restrictions for other overseas researchers looking to study Indonesian wildlife.

The order means that the heads of Indonesia’s national parks must now report to the ministry regarding every request from foreign researchers, forward reports on any research by foreign scientists, and supervise foreign researchers in their work.

Appeals to the ministry for further discussion about the order have been ignored, according to the letter of complaint, which has been signed by human rights group Amnesty International and environmental watchdog WALHI, among others.

Meijaard told Eco-Business: “For me personally, it means that it will be pretty much impossible to obtain data about conservation in Indonesia, because I am not allowed to collect them myself, and nor are others in Indonesia allowed to share them with me.”

But he added that the impact is much bigger, because the letter calls for greater control of NGOs and scientists and their research and publications.

“If government controls information because in Indonesia people cannot freely publish their research findings and because outside Indonesia people cannot obtain reliable information, then the government can generate an alternative narrative about what is happening with Indonesia’s wildlife and natural ecosystems, and unless there is a counter-narrative, the government narrative will become reality,” he said.

The clamp down comes at a time of shrinking academic and civic society freedoms in Indonesia.

In 2019, conservation group WWF Indonesia had its licence to work with the environment ministry on nature park conservation terminated. In 2020, Phillip Jacobson, an American journalist for environmental journal Mongabay, was arrested and had his passport taken for violating business visa restrictions.

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